Kurdistan’s Unsung Heroes

The history of Kurdish women has sadly been an invisible one — not because people don’t want to know about Kurdish women, but because they don’t know where to learn about Kurdish women. It’s hard to know about women from an ethnic background when their history has not been fully documented. Consequently, many precious elements of Kurdish heritage are unknown and lost. As a Kurdish migrant brought up in Australia it has been fairly easy to read up about great influential women in the west. However, learning about my Kurdish history has been difficult because books about the history of Kurds are focused on their geographic location, and struggles towards self determination and even then individuals highlighted throughout history are mainly Men. You may have heard of the likes of Salahadin, Mîstefa Barzanî, Qazî Mihemmed, Dr. Abdul Rahman Qasimlo and Abdullah Öcalan, just to name a few. All great men who contributed immensely to Kurdish history in their own era’s. But the same efforts of women have seemed to go unnoticed.

Conversely even looking through feminism history, literature, books, documentaries and reports about influential women you will not find many which highlights Kurdish women and their influence in the world or, more fittingly, the Kurdish struggle. As a Kurdish woman I feel we are greatly underestimated, undermined and un-represented by the world. You will hear countless stories of influential women in the middle-east, but Kurdish women are yet to be adequately highlighted even by the feminist world.

The Kurdish struggle is unlike any other in that not only women but Kurdish people in general do not get a lot of Media coverage. Let alone when it comes to Women in history and beyond, and unfortunately that has not changed over time. However, due to the nature of our struggles and the long and hard battle for an independent Kurdistan many influential Kurdish women have raised to the occasion, at times being even more influential and greater contributors to our history than their male counterparts.

Dating back to 1887 I found an article by the New York Times which Talks about a Kurdish visitor to the Turkish capital by the name of Kara Fatma and describes her as ‘the redoubtable female warrior of Kurdistan’. The article is about her recognition by the Ottoman Empire for single handily leading a group of Kurdish volunteers to battle during the Crimean war. Only in recent years has it been discussed in public to allow women in the front lines during war for the Australian Army. This article is dated November 8 1887, showing the ‘modern’ mentality of Kurdish women two centuries ago that the west is only catching up to in the last decade. Zrena who was the first woman who led the army of the Median Empire and Mir Xanzad who was one of the higher commanders in the military, in 1590 to take over the reins of power and became princess of Soran Emirate, are also great examples of Kurdish women who have greatly contributed to history and feminism alike.

Hapsa Khan is another of the greatest examples of a role model for Kurdish feminism in Kurdistan and around the world. Hapsa Khan was born in the Kurdish city of Slemani, South Kurdistan, to a prominent family in 1881. She is believed to have been the first woman in Kurdistan to stress the importance of education for women as a means to gain freedom. She was active during Shaikh Mahmud’s autonomous government in the early 1920’s and was a supporter of the nationalistic cause. She established what is considered the first Kurdish women’s organization in Iraq. She pursued an agenda for the progression of Kurdish women, especially in gaining access to literacy and education, later she founded an evening school for women in the region. In the book Kurdistan in the Shadow of History, a German photographer named Lotte Errell describes Hapsa Khan as the woman “whose husband gets up when she enters the room.” Portraying the great respect she had amongst her community in an age and culture where women were more interested in raising a family and less concerned with their role in society.

In more modern day age Leyla Qasim and Layla Zana are two of the most obvious and influential Kurdish women in Kurdistan. During a period in history when society was not acceptant toward women entering the political arena Leyla Qasim dared to play an active role not just in politics but Kurdish politics. Leyla was one of five children and the only girl in the family. In 1970, she joined the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). A year later she started her studies in sociology at the University of Baghdad. In 1972 she became an active member of Kurdistan Student Union (Yekiti Qotabi yen Kurdistane). On April 28, 1974, Leyla was imprisoned by the unfair Iraqi regime. Despite the fact that Leyla and her friends were nothing but symbols of freedom and peace, they had become victims of the unlawful Ba’ath regime. Her heroism and brave spirit was an absolute threat to the Ba’ath regime for she was perceived to make a great impact on Kurdish students and Kurdish women and support them to become active figures of Kurdish politics. She was arrested, tortured and ultimately hanged after a lengthy show trial, broadcasted throughout Iraq, but before she died during her hearing in front of the Ba’ath judge, Leyla with a loud and brave voice said:

“Kill me! But you must also know that after my death thousands of Kurds will wake up from their deep sleep. I am happy that I will die with pride and for an independent Kurdistan!”

Leyla Zana, unlike her pre-assessors, is a living symbol of Kurdish patriotism and women’s, as well as, human rights activisim in Kurdistan. Leyla’s greatest dream was to breathe freedom and live in a fair society, which created her love and commitment to politics and the Kurdish cause at an age as early as fourteen. In 1988 after her and a group of people rioted against the Turkish soldiers for torturing the imprisoned men they wanted to visit, including her Husband Mehdi Zana who was the former Mayor of Amed in North Kurdistan. She was tormented and treated with cruelty for the 57 days she was held in prison, without trial. Her ill treatment in prison and suffering of her husband led her to political stance for her people and she decided to take the first step to break the cycle of oppression. So, on October 20, 1991 Leyla Zana became the first elected Kurdish woman for parliamentarian position in Turkey. Celebrating her identity and her successes Leyla concluded her oath as a Kurdish female parliamentarian, with the following famous statement in Kurdish which shocked the Turkish government at the time:

“I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.”

Her representation and pride in the Kurdish flag, her identity, her stand on human and women’s rights and the statement she made in her native language has had her land in prison many times. A highlight of her career and a proud achievement for Kurds and women alike was when she was nominated for the Nobel Peace prize in 1995 for her courage and will to create a peaceful environment between Kurds and other nationalities. During her 10 years in Turkish prisons she was awarded other peace prizes such as the Sakharov Prize and Bruno Kreisky Award and was nominated a second time for the Nobel peace prize in 1998.

From our war warriors to our modern day heroes, from Kara Fatma to Leyla Zana Kurdistan has had many great Kurdish women who have greatly contributed to human and women’s rights. Even though they have had to fight not only the oppression of their ethnicity, language and culture, but they have also had to overcome the suppression of their sex. Even the women who haven’t fought wars and died in the mountains for their rights, even those who haven’t stood in parliament and imprisoned for their language and ethnicity are still great heroes in Kurdistan. The most unsung of all are probably Kurdish mother’s. Those who have lived through genocides and wars only to see their sons killed and daughters raped. Only to see their own mother and father live the same fate. I was sitting in a café once across from a Kurdish mother who knows all too well of the atrocities committed against her people, having lived through it herself. I was deeply memorised by her inner peace and passion for women and Kurdistan despite all she and her family had been through. As she sang with her angelic voice about the Kurdish struggle it took all the muscles in my body not to break down and cry. As she looked through me and at the world in the window outside, the fear, anger and passion that burned in her tears fueled the fire in me. I will never forget that moment and just like Leyla Zana and those before her, she stands as a hero in my heart as do all Kurdish women and I vow to not let the world forget our Kurdish mothers, sisters and great women warriors as they continue their struggle for our freedom.

A version of this post has been published on the E-Feminist website: http://e-feminist.com/home/2012/7/4/the-women-of-kurdistan.html